Fertility fraud calls man from Normal to action
Richardson has juvenile onset rheumatoid arthritis. It's called Still's disease. He was curious where his condition came from and about potential other genetic medical issues. In addition to the work on his family tree, he decided to do a DNA kit as well.
When it came back in April 2021, what he found was a crime. It's sexual assault. It's something that violates sacred family bonds. It's fertility fraud, something that often takes decades to come to light.
DNA services offer an option to let clients know of other people who have used the service that share varying proportions of DNA. They can identify long-lost cousins, and relatives who are until then unknown.
“And I didn't think anything of it. I looked at it. And some names I didn't recognize were matches,” said Richardson.
At the time, Richardson said he had not yet realized the terminology "close family relationship" generally means a sibling or half sibling. He went on vacation, and when he and his family returned he had a stack of messages from the site.
“I got a message from somebody who said, ‘Hey, sorry to keep bothering you. Let me know if you want me to stop contacting you just want to make sure you're OK. Here's my personal cell phone number and call me anytime if you need to talk,'" said Richardson.
He had a lot of messages. Some were similar. One pointed him to media coverage of a doctor at a fertility clinic who had substituted his own sperm for the reproductive material he was supposed to use. That physician had been accused and convicted of consumer fraud for misrepresenting himself to the attorney general of another state.
“My head was spinning at that point,” said Richardson.
He asked his parents whether they had used a fertility clinic to get pregnant with him, some four decades earlier. They had.
“In vitro wasn't as common back then. It was more artificial insemination. Putting the pieces together, then realizing all these names … the worst fear was that this had happened to my parents,” said Richardson. “We followed up to get confirmation whether that could be accurate, and when we got confirmation, that discovery (that) my dad was not my biological father, that confirmed our worst nightmare.”
Fertility fraud, he found, is not uncommon. There’s at least one more case in Illinois and others he knows of in Arizona, Colorado, California, Florida, New York, Ohio, and Texas.
“What I came to learn was I had a lot of half siblings. To date, at least 95-plus. And this had occurred over a period of years, and years and years. It's just hard to describe all the emotions I went through, that I'm still going through, that my parents went through and are still going through and trying to process all that together. Not only is the reality that you thought was the case, not the truth, but then you're faced with this new reality,” said Richardson.
His father’s large extended family is a set of people he now knows he's not biologically related to.
“We are definitely a very close family. That really hasn't changed. I can't say it wasn't awkward at first after you have these very tough conversations and realization. But leaning on each other has certainly helped. I'm blessed. I'm blessed with great parents who have done nothing but try to support me through this whole situation,” said Richardson.
It raised questions about what unknown medical conditions could be in his new family tree. The fact the doctor had done this dozens of times added to the difficulty.
There are many theories why a physician might transgress in this manner: a God complex, a desire to boost positive results at the clinic in the early days of fertility medicine, vanity, their own sexual deviancy?
“You can drive yourself crazy if you try to figure that out that question out. It's really hard. I think it's just those doctors would have to answer those questions why each of them chose to violate the most sacred right of any patient, and violate a patient's body in that way,” said Richardson.
Not every family who goes through this is as understanding as Richardson. Some choose to keep it quiet, thinking it shameful that people might know they were victimized that way. Family bonds can be strained over the trauma.
“Unfortunately, there are some very tough situations where the children have very contentious, if not, removed relationships with family members. Their family members don't want to accept it. They don't want them speaking about it. So it causes a lot of internal conflict. It causes a lot of emotions,” said Richardson.
He said his own struggle to deal with it is not to internalize it.
“I won't say that I haven't had a lot of health issues and distraction as a result of this. But I feel like I'm at my best when I'm doing my job. I'm an attorney by profession and so I need to do what I can to help my parents, find some sort of accountability, find some sort of justice,” said Richardson. “One of the ways I cope is by trying to take some of that power back for victims, for the mothers who have been violated and feel like there's nothing they can do.”
Richardson is writing laws for states that do not have them. And one for the federal context as well. He spoke Thursday at a congressional roundtable in Washington, D.C., about the need for legislation, both criminal and civil.
Illinois does not have a law. Richardson said he’s working with Democratic state Sen. Dave Koehler of Peoria, Republican state Sen. Chapin Rose of Mahomet, and others to push for passage of SB 4199, which he said is getting bipartisan support.
“That has been the case with a lot of these bills in the states where this has happened. We've been going state by state and trying to get laws passed,” said Richardson.
The bill would create the felony crime of fertility fraud. It would establish civil remedies as well. It has a component for liquidated damages, actual damages, and allows for punitive damages, Richardson said.
He said it could qualify as a sexual assault. And he wants it made retroactive on the civil side because it may be decades before the crime comes to light.
“A new civil cause of action is only prospective unless there's an intent expressed in the law to make it retroactive. That's one of the pieces I added, that's different from some of the other state laws,” said Richardson.
Retroactivity is often a tough precedent to set, yet Richardson expects it to fly.
“The fraud may have occurred years ago, and I would argue is still occurring because had that victim not actually gone through a DNA test or something, they would have never discovered it. There's an active concealment piece on the part of the doctor. They're not disclosing what had happened. There's a concept that holds, any statute of limitations until the discovery is made,” said Richardson.
On the federal level, Richardson is promoting House Resolution 8600, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Stephanie Bice, a Republican from Oklahoma.
“It creates a federal crime of fertility fraud, and it has a jurisdictional hook because to have a federal crime you need to have it touch on interstate acts to meet the threshold. The other unique thing the federal bill as currently written will do is make this crime a predicate offense under RICO. That could expand the criminal penalties. It allows it to be investigated by federal agencies,” said Richardson.
He said state laws vary and a federal measure would establish some uniformity.
Richardson chose not to identify the physician for the WGLT interview.
The meaning of self
Richardson said thinking through what that doctor did to him years ago has prompted him to re-examine his own identity, reconciling it with the newly discovered history.
“I'm not gonna lie. That's a big piece,” said Richardson. “The question of the nature-nurture argument, I've come to realize is who I am is based upon how I was raised and through my parents. While there may be genetic traits or similarities with others, it doesn't change who I am as a person.”
Telling kids is difficult for many families that go through the realization of fertility fraud. He said every person can determine whether to tell their children, at what developmental age, and the level of detail appropriate for a particular age.
“I talked to a lot of different people. Most of them said that they went ahead and made the decision to disclose it to their children. And children are pretty resilient. In my case, we felt it was better to be able to discuss it. I didn't want them to resent, when they grow older, not knowing the truth and feeling like we withheld something from them. It's already difficult enough because, the adult victims and their parents have not been told the truth,” said Richardson.
He acknowledged parents may have to share more information as their children grow, which has the potential to re-traumatize the adults who have to revisit it, when they had found an adjustment.
“This isn't something that you can put away and try to go on with life as it was before. There are a lot of different things I found that are traumatic. You have to learn strategies and tools to be able to deal with that. Different people take different approaches, whether it's talking to family members, a counselor, your doctor, or a spiritual faith-based approach,” said Richardson. “You can go for weeks at a time and feel normal, and then something will happen and it'll reoccur.”
It has become easier for him. His work on the law helps. There is a support group of the half siblings, the co-participants in the situation.
"We have a private group on social media. We have various things that we've done. There's a Secret Sibling rather than a Secret Santa we've done. We have different surveys and lists to try to get to know each other. We talk on the phone. I've met a handful of them in person, but intend to meet a lot more,” said Richardson.
Though their income, education, profession, and personalities vary, Richardson and his siblings have noticed some similarities.
“The rate of our speech is interesting. I speak in a very deliberate, slow manner. I found that trait in some of my other siblings. You see some mannerisms in common when you meet,” said Richardson.
If there is anything good from this, Richardson said, it has been the friendliness, warmth, and ability to talk with those new relatives.